Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt, by Philip Walker, Oxford University Press, U.K., 2018, $34.95
The dashing romanticism of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman empire during World War I—replete with daring raids, exotic settings, glorious charges and colorful leaders—has long captured the historical imagination. Myriad books, documentaries and a blockbuster Hollywood film have kept the story alive. Much of the enduring interest centers on the role of British officer T.E. Lawrence—aka “Lawrence of Arabia”—whose adoption of Arab dress, frontline role and subsequent autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, have fueled the “Lawrence legend.”
Historian and retired archaeologist Philip Walker seeks to broaden the narrative of the revolt by recalling key people who have largely fallen through the cracks of history. He began with research into the wartime work of Capt. Thomas Goodchild, a veterinary officer whose task was to acquire camels—among the region’s primary military assets—thus securing vital transport for British military operations in the Levant while denying their use to the Turks. Though lacking the flash of, say, blowing up trains in the desert or storming Aqaba, his mission was no less vital. The rediscovery of Goodchild in turn led the author to other unexplored figures and events in the oft-told story.
Walker’s extensive research and contact with participants’ descendants—many of whom shared previously unknown photographs, artifacts, documents and narratives—shed light on the important intelligence, support and operational roles of such British officers as Col. Cyril Edward Wilson, Capt. William Boyle, Capt. Norman Bray and Lt. Lionel Gray. They and others like them undertook missions and tasks crucial to the creation of Arab forces able to support the British campaign in the Middle East, including Lawrence’s headline-grabbing exploits.
With his compellingly written and detailed retelling of the Arab Revolt, Walker also performs the laudable service of acknowledging the anonymous figures behind a legend, thus breathing new life into a popular tale.
—Justin D. Lyons